Last Thursday I came home from a long day of work to a Facebook feed that jolted me awake. At that very moment, 40 minutes away from me in San Francisco, protesters were blocking a bus from deporting its passengers, shouting and tweeting "Shut down ICE!"
I frantically began texting and calling friends, desperate to find a way to get there, but after an hour I finally accepted that it was not going to work. I sat down and began tweeting while watching the live stream, settling for a decidedly less exciting virtual presence at this historic event.
I was an ally, not an actor, in this particular action. Online activism is one thing, but throwing your body in front of a bus is another.
That day made me think: is online activism the best way to communicate with the immigrant community? Is it the only way to pressure our politicians?
For one, many undocumented immigrants are not even on social media. Some people don not speak enough English to find it useful, others cannot afford the electronics needed to participate, others simply do not have the time for the enormous time-suck that is Facebook. For those who are most marginalized because of a our broken immigration system — those who perhaps need immigration reform the most — social media is probably the least effective means of making an impact.
The #ShutDownICE protests that first happened in Tucsonand San Francisco were effective because they called on a community to rally in ways they have for decades, and because they disrupted daily life and attracted the attention of our lawmakers. If you were a politician, would you pay more attention to 1000 people marching down your street or 1000 tweets attached to a hashtag?
I would never want to suggest that social media is not useful, or important. I have based my career on online activism and I'm not about to give up on it. Social media is certainly a wonderful tool for promoting conversation, but we have to translate those conversations into action. Offline activism often involves greater personal risks and can send stronger messages than live tweeting an event.
The activists who sat in front of that bus last Thursday risked arrest in order to make a statement about immigration reform. The protesters who were undocumented risked deportation and being torn away from their home and loved ones. Some protesters were browner, or poorer, or queerer than others, meaning that their interactions with police might be more dangerous, more humiliating, and altogether more difficult.
Not all the participants in this protests chose to place themselves in front of the bus, either. Some stood on the sidelines, waved signs, or sang chants. Each of us chooses our level of comfort when it comes to civil disobedience and it's important to honor that.
But that day I was sitting behind a computer screen. And knowing my own privilege, as a light-skinned, documented, unaccented, educated, and economically privileged Latina, it felt like a waste.
Because I could have been there, risking less to make the same statement.
At its most effective, social media amplifies on-the-ground activism to reach an exponentially broader audience, and hopefully the ears of our politicians and people in power.
But conversations have to take place offline as well, and online activism must be converted into personal actions. If we want fair immigration reform, let's look to those who are putting their faces on a cause, and join them.
And let's tweet it, Instagram it, or Facebook it, so that more people can, in turn, get up and meet us there.